In my travels, I’ve found there are two types of grand hotels, those that as you walk through them you can imagine what they must have been like in their prime, and those that are still enjoying glory. Zurich’s Baur au Lac falls into the latter category.
Since its opening in 1844, it has been owned and managed by the Baur-Kracht family, now in its sixth generation. Like most grand hotels, the hotel has been both a witness to history and still reflects the world hundreds of years ago. In fact, its original building has higher ceilings on the first, second and third floors where royal guests stayed. The fourth floor, with ceilings that are still high by today’s standards, are lower as that is where the help would stay. During World War II, the hotel was the venue for secret meetings between British and Nazi diplomats. With a food shortage in Switzerland, the lake garden was used to grow potatoes not only for hotel patrons, but the local community. Going back farther, in 1856, Richard Wagner premiered the first act of Valkyrie at the hotel. In 1892, after meetings at the hotel, Alfred Nobel decided to launch the International Nobel Prize.
The guest register includes royalty of the court and silver screen: King Ludwig I of Bavaria , King Carl XVI of Sweden, Queen Sonja of Norway and the Emperor I. Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Empress Elisabeth of Austria as well as Thomas Mann, Alfred Hitchcock, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Audrey Hepburn, Jayne Mansfield, Brigitte Bardot, Renée Zellweger, Richard Gere and Daniel Craig have all stayed in the various 37 suites. More recently, the hotel received camera time during the FIFA scandal. Walt Disney enjoyed his stay at the hotel enough that he made a comic showing Donald Duck having lunch at the Baur au Lac.
Staying relevant over such a long period doesn’t come cheap. Since 2000, the owners have spent over $150 million in renovations which are ongoing. Over $5 million was spent to completely renovate the lobby lounge (pictured above) two years ago. The hotel has its own team of builders meaning little blemishes are repaired right away, not waiting for a corporate manager to sign off on a budget item. The hotel has two full-time florists whose work can be seen in both public rooms and suites. There are three mechanics who are trained on all sorts of exotic cars, and some guests do in fact use their visits to the hotel to have their autos tuned up.
“The thing about the Baur is the service. You have the butlers with the white gloves. It’s something that goes back six generations,” says Jack Bloch, owner of JB’s World Travel Consultants, who frequently books guests into the hotel. Room keys are state of the art electronic variety like the most modern hotels, however, in the case of the Baur au Lac, they are presented as a traditional key, with weighty holder. An executive says, “We want you to feel like you are in your home. In your home, you don’t have a plastic keycard.”
For better or worse, Zurich has a limited number of truly five-star hotel options.
Bloch describes them this way: “The Dolder Grand has a young, chic crowd (but) it’s outside of the center. It’s not far, but it’s the difference from being in Brooklyn or Manhattan if you use New York as a comparison.” Regarding the Park Hyatt, down the block from the Baur Au Lac, he says, “Diehard Park Hyatt people stay there, (however) there’s a distinct group of people who want classic. It’s like staying at the Le Bristol or Park Hyatt in Paris.”
While you may think of Zurich more of a business destination, the largest segment of guests the hotel says is what it describes as “Bleisure.” With some 80 museums, the pleasant Swiss lake lifestyle during the summer, a surprisingly hot party scene or as a base for Art Basel (where there aren’t enough luxury hotel rooms) or stopover on the way to or from various Alpine resorts, many guests combine leisure and business activities. See our look at the Zurich Scene in Fast Facts.
On Trip Advisor Baur Au Lac ranks #1 of 131 hotels in Zurich. In the last three years there were a total four Poor/Terrible ratings (two about advance requests regarding food allergies) out of some 470 reviews. In other words, there isn’t much to complain about.
As you might expect, the Baur au Lac doesn’t take any liberties with its classification of suites. A suite means you get a separate bedroom, whereas junior suites mean that the bedroom and living area are in the same room. It’s a refreshing and honest approach in an industry that uses both terms liberally.
What may come as a surprise is that unlike many five star hotels, there are no over-the-top 10,000 sq. ft., $50,000 per night suites, however you have the possibility to connect up to seven accommodations with each other. As with most historic hotels, there are variations between suite types, but there are several key decisions you need to make.
Do you want a view of the lake, canal or city, or do you prefer the courtyard, which is the quietest although all rooms are well insulated. There are also a multitude of connecting room options that enable you to customize the space you need.
You can reserve suite categories, but not specific suites. The reason being as plans often change, guests extend their stay. There is also a free daily replenishment of the minibar.
Deluxe Corner Suites Facing The Lake
The top suite category, there is a marble entrée with a guest toilet and separate living and bedroom. The living room faces the lake and the canal side of the hotel. The Bedroom has a walk in wardrobe. The bathroom is all marble, has a large black bathtub, separate toilet and a marble shower cabin with three different water systems. ” This is the ultimate room combining views of the city, park, lake and canal (and has a) spacious private outdoor balcony. This is my go-to room category for clientele as it works both for the business or leisure traveler. The business traveler enjoys the spacious workspace, conference-calling telephone system and wireless speakers which allows one to work from any room in the suite. For the leisure traveler all luxury amenities and personal touches are seamlessly incorporated to give the guest a memorable stay,” says Bloch. There are three of these suites, each 970 sq. ft. Rate is CHF 3,800.
Deluxe River Suite
The personal residence of the hotel’s former Managing Director, it has been converted and can now be your home in Zurich. At 1,185 sq. ft. it is the largest suite in the hotel. It has a private back entrance to the street, making it popular for guests who don’t want to pass through the hotel lobby. It can be combined with two adjacent units to form a three-bedroom suite. It also has a second entrance for room service to the kitchenette, so you can have service without disturbing a meeting in the living room, or colleagues can leave from a meeting as others are entering. It features a large marble bathroom in addition to a guest toilette. That said, Bloch says the suite’s more minimalist decor feels out of place with the rest of the hotel and he thinks the living room could use more furniture. Of course at Baur Au Lac, you could probably ask them to deliver a few more chairs, and it would be no problem. Rate is also CHF 3,800.
Deluxe Suites Facing The Lake
There are three Deluxe Suites facing the lake spread across the first, second and third floors, each 755 sq. ft. Decor is similar to the Deluxe Corner Suites Facing The Lake, and while you can’t reserve a specific suite in the category, the third floor has the best view, so ask upon check-in. Like all suite types there is an oversize bathtub, separate shower and toilet. This suite type doesn’t have a separate guest toilet. Rate is CHF 3,200.
River Suites Facing The Canal
From these suites you look out onto the Schanzengraben canal. There are seven River Suites, each about 700 sq. ft. Rate is CHF 2,400.
There are four City Suites, which means you have a view of Zurich’s eclectic rooftops. The average size is 670 sq. ft. and like all suites at the Baur Au Lac there is a fully separate bedroom and living room. Rate is CHF 1,800.
Deluxe Junior Suites (Lakeside or Courtyard)
The Deluxe Junior Suites are an interesting category if you don’t need a separate bedroom. At an average size of 650 to 700 sq. ft. they are a similar size to standard one-bedroom suites at most hotels. There are seven lakeside junior suites and three courtyard facing versions. Pictured above is 529. As is the situation in grand dames, rooms in categories often vary, so while the one picture above has a lovely terrace, not all do. Standard in all junior suite types is a marble bathroom with separate deep bathtub, shower and toilet. Why would you go for the Courtyard? While suites are all soundproof, if you do like to sleep with the windows open, although the hotel is not in a noisy area, you do get some city sounds. If you’ve been to Zurich before and don’t care about views, choose these. Rate is CHF 1,800.
There are 17 junior suites, and my recommendation would be the X34 line, on the first through fifth floors. Units 134 and 234 have balconies, while the ones on the higher floors are a bit larger. Situated on the hotel corner they each have canal views. You can also reserve junior suites facing the courtyard. Rate is CHF 1,200.
Other Room Types
There are double rooms and single rooms. Doubles average 380 sq. ft. Not all have a separate shower, which means a high step into the deep tub to shower, which could be an issue if you have mobility issues. Request that you have a room with a separate shower closet. Bloch says the single rooms (270 sq. ft.) are small. They have queen beds and are good for your traveling team, but to put things in perspective, I just walked the new Renaissance Hotel in Manhattan where the standard double rooms are 250 sq. ft.
Dining and Bars
As you might expect, fine dining is an attraction of the hotel. Acclaimed chef Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park) got his start in the kitchen here. Baur Au Lac offers a diverse selection of places to eat and drink, from a very traditional luxury hotel lobby, to its Michelin star Pavillon and Rive Gauche, which has a lively and young after work bar scene as well as being a place for carnivores to find placation.
Pierre-Yves Rochon-designed Pavillon gourmet restaurant reopened in May 2009. A Michelin inspector describes the glass gazebo one-star establishment, “The almost 360 degree glazed rotunda with its country views is wonderful. Good classic cuisine prepared by Laurent Eperon, with dishes that include roast sea bass with Perigord truffles.” There is an open fireplace in the lounge area, and regardless of the season, you feel connected with nature, even though you are in the middle of a city. The Pavillon seats 64 and is open Mondays to Fridays from noon until 2 pm and Mondays to Saturdays 7 pm until 10 pm. It also earned 17 GaultMillau points.
Steaks and fresh vegetables are the focus at Rive Gauche. Michelin says, “One of the places to be seen in the city center. The great cosmopolitan interior attracts a trendy young and young at heart crowd to eat (grilled meats) and drink, but also to see and be seen.” It rates the food “Good Standard.” If you get frustrated by the service hours of restaurants in Europe, Rive Gauche bucks the trend and serves 1130am – Midnight seven days a week, with the bar staying open until 2am on weekends.
Rive Gauche Terrasse
Not to be confused with Rive Gauche, Rive Gauche Terrasse is a seasonal, outdoor restaurant in Baur Au Lac’s park that runs from the hotel to the lake. It is a nice place to have a glass of champagne at the end of the day, or the middle for that matter. Lunch and dinner are served daily. It is also the venue for the hotel’s annual Summer Party which might remind you more of Ibiza than Zurich.
As the definition of luxury has broadened, it makes it hard to say there are any true standards to what makes a luxury hotel. That said, Baur Au Lac checks all the boxes, which should include twice daily maid service and having 24-hour concierge service. All rooms have room safes and individual fax numbers. There is also an IT butler onsite which is very handy. Quite a few ‘luxury’ hotels now outsource the service, which I am sure saves money, but isn’t helpful when you have a problem. As previously mentioned there is a complimentary daily restock of your minibar. And while you might appreciate the flower arrangements, having an in-house florist means if you have any last minute floral gifting needs, voila.
The gym is open daily from 6:30am to 10:00pm, however, like most anything, if you want to go earlier or later that can be arranged. The primary focus is cardio (Treadmills, Bicycle Ergometer, Stepper, Rowing) although there are machines (Leg Press, Chest Press, Row/Rear Delt, Back Extension, Torso Rotation and Glutes) and free weights. You can also arrange trainers. One poster from Trip Advisors says, “It’s definitely not the fanciest gym in the world, but you can’t beat the view…We were there in January during a snowstorm, and I ran on a treadmill in the rooftop gym surrounded by swirling snow and wonderful snow covered city views.” Another guest says, “Excellent for a hotel gym.” The Baur au Lac doesn’t have a pool, however, they can arrange access to a pool if you are a swimmer.
The hotel hosts groups up to 400, and its variety of meeting rooms and its canal side ballroom offer multiple options. There is state of the art technology, but its elements such as the heavy doors that may take a bit of muscle to open, but like the rest of the place, the focus on using high quality materials means rooms are soundproofed to provide noise from coming in or going out.
There are six conference rooms. All rooms are equipped with the latest technology and wireless LAN. Newly designed and furnished by Parisian architect Pierre-Yves Rochon, Salon I and Salon II are for conferences and banquets. Like public spaces and guest rooms, ownership has paid attention to furnishings and ambiance. There are deep-pile carpets, lithographs by Le Corbusier, a grey Saint Anne marble Louis 16 th fireplace and a Baccarat crystal chandelier.
Also, newly designed by Frédéric d’Haufayt, the Petit Palais pays tribute to the ballroom’s distinguished history. The reconstructed coffered ceiling was modeled on the original dating back to the 19th century. The draped curtains are mirrored in the crystal-decorated walls; the gallery provides the ideal setting for major events, and in combination with Salon I and II are suitable for events for up to 400 people. If you are looking for something al fresco for a small cocktail reception, there is a new 4 th floor rooftop terrace with views across the rooftops and lake. There are Daily Delegate Rates for groups of 20 or more that include meeting room preparation, morning and afternoon coffee breaks and lunch that are priced at CHF 175 and CHF 185 per person.
Zurich was recently ranked as the second best city in the world for expats to live, behind Vienna. The United Nations ranks Switzerland number one in the world in its Happiness Index, so the first thing to understand is that the vision of just chocolates and bankers misses the point that Zurich is a culturally rich, cool metropolis with a surprisingly youthful, hipster leaning vibe. The city has over 80 museums. Its luxury shopping street, Bahnhofstrasse, is world famous with designer boutiques and lots of watch retailers. There is an old town with narrow streets and historic buildings, and a new town, Zurich West, where once decaying warehouses are now home to cutting edge galleries and coffee shops with a growing list of innovative bistros.
While Zurich may not be South Beach, its Badis (pools and beach clubs) are lauded by Monocle for attracting tanned, toned and tattooed sun worshippers who swim, spa and party into the night. In fact, during warmer months there is a trendy and quite exciting scene on the lake. There are tourist boats you can hop on or you can rent your own boat as well. At the end of the day, Switzerland is a small country, so it’s possible to use Zurich as a base and drive, motorcycle or train an hour or two and then hike through meadows where the only sound is ringing cowbells.
Zurich Airport is open 24 hours with restrictions and can handle all sizes of aircraft up to Airbus A380s. If you are not flying privately, the airport offers a VIP meet and greet service that will pick you up at the door of your commercial flight and transfer you via limo, handle immigration, collect luggage and get you on your way. A similar service is offered on departure.
For helicopter arrivals, Dubendorf Airport is a less congested alternative if you are coming or going from an Alpine resort, most of which have helipads.
The New York Times: The Baur Au Lac And Me
Forbes: Four Dreamy Escapes To Live Out Your Lake Zurich Fairytales
Forbes:The Times Charms Of One Of Europe’s Grandest Hotels
The Wall Street Journal:An Insiders Guide To Zurich
Managing Director Wilhelm Luxem at firstname.lastname@example.org or +41 44 220 50 20